Friday, August 15, 2008

BEIJING | Revered for her role as the “Iron Hammer” linchpin of the Chinese volleyball team on world championship and Olympic gold medal-winning teams, Jenny Lang Ping felt suffocated a dozen years ago.

So one of the most famous and recognizable athletes in the People’s Republic moved … to New Mexico.

“I wanted to taste a normal life,” Lang Ping said. “I couldn’t go anywhere. For a Chinese person, I’m pretty tall, and I couldn’t hide. It got pretty tiring sitting in your room all the time, and I couldn’t go public and to the movies. I said, ‘Let’s go to the U.S.’”

In China, she once had a postage stamp issued for her, and her wedding reception was broadcast. In the United States, she could coach volleyball and not have her every move chronicled.

Today in a pool match of the Olympic tournament, Lang Ping’s past and present collide when she coaches the Americans against China. The United States is 2-1.

After a third consecutive Olympics in which it failed to medal, America hired Lang Ping in 2005 in hopes of getting back into contention. The United States entered the games ranked fourth in the world and has defeated Brazil and China this year.

Lang Ping expects a warm reception from the Chinese crowd.

“They probably wanted me to stay in China, but most of the fans understand because sports is international,” she said. “The Chinese federation has a lot of foreign coaches in a lot of different sports. The Chinese were proud the USA would hire me as coach.”

Since Lang Ping was hired, the United States has gone 26-15, 16-11, 26-11 and then 18-10 this season.

“She was a player, so she knows the inside game of volleyball, and she’s really aware of how to train and prepare our team,” middle blocker Danielle Scott-Arruda said.

Lang Ping grew up in Beijing and returns to the city a few times each year. Its progress is startling.

“The country is, of course, different,” she said. “China has opened the door, and we have been improving everywhere. I need a GPS. I’m always asking, ‘Where’s this?’ I can’t imagine how much change there is.”

What has continued is the training of elite, young athletes. When Lang Ping, 44, was growing up, the elite athletes were trained better and received more support than other children.

“We had whatever we needed, and we didn’t have to worry,” she said. “It was very easy for athletes to reach a high level. You get good coaching and go step by step until you reach a high level.”

In her prime, Lang Ping was one of the best volleyball players in the world. The Chinese, getting reintroduced to international competition, won the World Cup in 1981 and are largely credited with spurring interest in the sport.

“I was surprised after that how people were so excited and felt a huge thing happened,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was like a dream. At that time, China hadn’t opened the door to the world that much. Since then, the Chinese people believe we can do well, and it gave them confidence they could have a better life if they fight to connect to the world.”

Led by Lang Ping, the Chinese won the world championship in 1982 and then the Olympic title on U.S. soil in 1984. Three years later, she moved to the United States to begin two stints on the University of New Mexico coaching staff. She returned to coach China to a silver medal in 1996 and later coached in Italy.

This month, as on previous trips, Lang Ping requires security because fans want to get so close to her.

“For us as Americans, it’s difficult to grasp her popularity because the sport isn’t as popular in the United States as it is here or in Europe,” Nicole Davis of the U.S. team said. “It’s been a neat experience to see a woman held up with such respect by all generations from young kids to grandparents. Everybody knows who she is. She’s more than just a volleyball person to people. She’s a historical figure.”

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